TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House of Representatives chamber sits on the fourth floor of the Capitol. For some kids, the ride up was their first on an elevator.
"Is it scary?" they asked teacher Michele Martinez as they boarded.
In the group were 30 students and 14 adults. They represented Lacoochee Elementary School's student council and Future Educators of America. It took them months of small fundraisers to collect the $1,000 for the 12-hour round-trip school bus ride on Friday, their day off from school.
But, as Martinez said, children from the poor, rural community — many of whom have traveled miles as migrant workers but never come close to the halls of government — "need these experiences."
House messenger Vicky MacInnis ushered the children into the cavernous chamber, and one by one they took the seats assigned to 120 state representatives.
The "comfy" chairs — which the kids still were talking about three days later — are big, leather and made to swivel. The wood desks have buttons, a microphone and gold nameplates.
Quietly they took in the huge scene before them: portraits of past House speakers, murals depicting state history and an enormous chandelier. The electronic vote board lit up with all the representatives' names and a special message for the kids: "Welcome Lacoochee Elementary!!!"
MacInnis gave the group a brief history of the House and quizzed them on state history. She called on the kids by the name of the representative whose desk they occupied. Rep. Bogdanoff? Rep. Llorente? Rep. Domino?
10 hours a day???
Soon came time for House journal writer Chris Beatty to lead them through a mock legislative session. He prodded the kids for a bill idea, but most clammed up. One suggested, "To open up more jobs?" But Beatty wanted to know how.
Legislation needs to be specific, he said.
What about something they've been talking about at school? Going to a four-day week. That's it. Bill sponsor? Rep. Cannon, otherwise known as Pasco Middle sixth-grader Sergio Contreras, who volunteers at Lacoochee.
Contreras made his case to the members: If you shorten the school week, you get "Friday, Saturday and Sunday off."
Beatty helped them realize it would mean longer school days the rest of the week. How long, they ask sponsor Contreras?
"Probably like 10 hours," he said. Huge gasps filled the room.
What do you have in mind for us to do for three more hours? "Basically what you do on Fridays," he said.
A parent in the group wanted to know who will watch the kids when they're out of school. "Babysitters."
The questions came fast and furious, and Contreras was pressed to answer.
Next, debate began. Again the students grew silent, so teacher Martinez stepped in. "Now's the time to say how you feel," she said. "If you want to get mad, get mad! This might become a law! You better say what you want to say!"
From there the arguments poured out. We'll lose sleep. But it'll save money. There will be more time for chores.
At last, it was time to vote. The kids pushed the buttons on their desk, yea or nay to the four-day school week. The board lit up as the votes came in. The bill failed by four votes.
'We got to vote'
Contreras blamed himself for not being able to answer all the questions. Still, he liked being in charge and declared it the coolest part of his day.
The kids took a few more votes, snapped some pictures and milled around the room before heading out to see more of the Capitol.
Third-grader Eva Parson, 9, hung back as the group shuffled ahead.
Her favorite part? "I think it was the fact that we got to sit in the representative's chair and we got to vote," she said.
For classmate Taleshia Pope, also 9, the highlight was an elevator ride — not to the House chambers but to the 22nd floor of a nearby building, where the group took in the entire Tallahassee skyline.
"I got a little nervous, though," Taleshia admitted Monday, as the children wrote thank-you letters to Rep. Will Weatherford, who helped organize their activities at the Capitol. But she wouldn't trade the trip for anything.
"That was really my first time traveling," she said. "I never went that far before."
The school is planning its next trip.
Amy Hollyfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.